With Smart Toys, Kids’ Privacy Is at Play

A recent FBI public service announcement warned that common features such as microphones and cameras “could put the privacy and safety of children at risk."

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Are Internet-connected toys available to students at your school? The FBI recently issued a public service announcement about them, warning that common features such as microphones and cameras “could put the privacy and safety of children at risk due to the large amount of personal information that may be unwittingly disclosed.” Gary Price, a librarian and the founder and editor of Library Journal’s infoDOCKET, a clearinghouse for information about the industry, agrees. “Everything that we do online and now increasingly with the Internet of things can be intercepted,” Price says. “It is probably being stored.” Internet-connected toys often interact with a child by asking and answering questions. The conversations are usually recorded to allow the toy to “get to know a child” in order to provide more appropriate responses. But too often parents don’t know where that information is being stored or what privacy protections the toy manufacturer has in place. Linnette Attai is the president and founder of PlayWell, LLC, a consulting firm that helps companies navigate digital and mobile privacy issues for kids. She’s reluctant to say these toys pose a threat, but she stresses that parents have to be vigilant about the technology, just as they would be with anything their child uses. “One of the things we need to remember is that good parenting hasn’t changed; technology has changed,” says Attai, who advises parents to do a lot of research before giving their child an Internet-connected toy. “See if there have been any recalls, any controversy, any issues that pop up that might be concerning. Read the instructions very carefully. These products come with privacy policies. You need to read them and review them. If you don’t understand them, if they’re written in legal jargon that’s complicated and not clear, that should be perhaps a signal not to purchase that product.” Attai also recommends that parents make sure they understand exactly how the toy works. They should know, for example, if the toy records all the time or only when it’s on and if that’s something the user can control. Price says the threat posed by these toys is real. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid them altogether. Instead, he says, parents, students, and school personnel have to be educated. “The informed user is the best user, or the informed nonuser is the best nonuser. In other words, have an awareness and make your decision based on what you value and what’s important to you. But you have to start somewhere with a basic level of information.” Price compares it to the knowledge one needs to drive a car. You don’t have to have a PhD in engineering to operate a vehicle, but you do need to know enough to stay safe. And when it comes to schools, Price says it’s especially important that educators know how students’ private information may be compromised. “Most schools don’t have an awareness of what’s going on to the degree that they need to,” he says. “It’s one thing to learn it. It’s another thing to stay current with the knowledge. Things are constantly changing with how the Internet works.” So what can parents and educators do to keep the young people in their lives safe?
  • Read and make sure you understand the toy’s privacy policy.
  • Find out if the data are being sent out from the toy
  • Find out who can access and handle the data. Often, it’s stored by a third party, not the toy manufacturer.
  • Turn the toy off when it’s not in use.
  • Don’t share personally identifiable information with the toy. For example, make something up for the child’s user name. Don’t provide the child’s actual name or birthday.
    marva_head_shotMarva Hinton is a contributing writer for Education Week and the host of the ReadMore podcast.

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